I recently read a highly publicized pro-NIMBY book, Vanishing New York. The author, who goes by the pen name “Jeremiah Moss” tells a simple story: throughout New York, gentrification and chain stores are on the march, making the city rich and boring. The story has an element of truth: obviously, there are some places that have gentrified, and there are some places (mostly notably Times Square) that have lots and lots of banks and chain stores.
But on balance, the book’s relationship with factual reality is a bit uneven. Much of the book complains about the evils of gentrification. But in fact, even in Manhattan the poverty rate is 17.9 percent, about three times that of most New York suburbs. Moss also claims that the city is getting whiter, but even Manhattan is 40 percent black and Hispanic, and New York City as a whole is 54 percent black and Hispanic. By contrast, in 1980 the city was only 45 percent black/Hispanic, and in 1940 it was over 90 percent white.
Moss seems to think that the city is being taken over by chain stores. The last time I walked through the East Village (one of the neighborhoods he writes about) I found about one or two such stores per block, or about 5 or 10 percent of all storefronts. My guess is that Moss thinks about chain stores the way many racists think about racial minorities: because they assume one is too many, 5 percent seems to them like a takeover.
Moss is all for immigration from foreign nations, but constantly complains about newcomers, especially parents; he uses the word “stroller” like anti-Semites use the term “international bankers”- as a code-word for a dreaded enemy. He has a problem with college students too (complaining about “NYU’s presence… [having] spread like a virus”). My impression is that Moss believes that cities should be a bantustan for bohemians and low-income minorities- everyone else keep out!
His history is sometimes based on fantasy: he suggests that 1970s fires in poor areas were “part of a conspiracy to chase blacks and Puerto Ricans from the city.” Since New York got less and less white throughout the 20th century, this would be one of the most unsuccessful conspiracies in American history.
Moss writes that the High Line “flatten[ed] multiple neighborhoods” and created “a dreamworld of exclusion.” So one might think that the Chelsea neighborhood surrounding the High Line lost people. Right? Wrong? Zip code 10001 (the Chelsea zip code) had about 17,000 people in 2000, and had just over 23,000 in 2015. Moss writes that because of gentrification “blacks were no longer the majority population in Harlem.” Not completely false (depending on how you define Harlem) but highly misleading. As blacks have been mostly replaced by Hispanics, Central Harlem is 79 percent black/Hispanic and only 15 percent white. Because the neighborhood’s population has grown by 30,000 people since 2000, it actually has more nonwhites than 15 years ago.
Moss is at least aware of the harms caused by high rents, but his remedies actually would exacerbate gentrification. He favors rent control and allowing neighborhoods to vote on housing – in English, less new housing. These policies would make the city’s existing housing shortage even worse, creating even more gentrification as people priced out of one neighborhood gentrify another.
Based on the largely favorable reviews, many people had a positive emotional reaction to this book. I did not. I think that my aversion to this book is based not just on policy disagreements, but on my vision of what a central city should look like. Moss dreams of a 1970s New York, a city that is desirable only for bohemians and for people who cannot afford to live elsewhere. I want to rebuild the city of the 1940s, a city that includes middle-class Republicans as well as bohemians.